Pam Dawber will always be remembered for her breakout role as the lovable, funny, down-to-earth Mindy McConnell — the counterpart to the late Robin Williams’ zaney alien Mork — in the quirky and iconic sitcom, Mork & Mindy, that ran from 1978 and 1982. She then captivated audiences as Samantha Russell on My Sister Sam between 1986 and 1988, establishing her as a household name and earning her a permanent place in television history.
But after a tragic shooting of a My Sister Sam costar, Dawber changed directions to focus on activism while sporadically appearing in various TV movies, working as a voice actor and taking time out to raise her two sons…until 2021 when she finally agreed to a recurring role on NCIS alongside her husband of 35 years, actor Mark Harmon.
Here, we catch up with Pam Dawber, now 71, as we look at her past, what she’s doing now and what the future holds for our favorite “Little Pooter”.
Pam Dawber’s early career
Dawber was born in Detroit and went to Reid Elementary School in Goodrich. She went on to the area’s high school and then Oakland Community College with the intention to transfer to a four-year college.
But part-time modeling work eventually had Dawber drop out to pursue modeling full time and that meant a move to New York City where she joined the prestigious Wilhelmina Models before switching to acting. Fotomat, Noxzema, Neet and other television commercials saw a smiling Dawber promoting their various products.
In 1977, Dawber was beat out by Lisa Hartman for the title role on the sitcom Tabatha, but ABC executives took notice and enrolled her in its talent development program. That same year, Dawber landed her first feature role as the former girlfriend of the groom who makes a memorable entrance astride a horse in Robert Altman’s A Wedding.
After Dawber was cast as the leading role in a busted ABC pilot Sister Terri, director Garry K. Marshall saw her all-American girl potential and recruited her for the show that would launch her into stardom (if not into the stars).
Pam Dawber on her love for Robin Williams
Marshall saw something in a young Dawber even though she had little acting experience and didn’t even audition for the role. Dawber’s development deal with ABC meant they paid to keep her under contract until they found a project for her or the contract expired.
After Sister Terri that flopped — “I played a nun who used to be a gang leader but she found God, so she’s there to fix up the neighborhood,” Dawber explained in the book Happier Days — scenes she filmed for it were later spliced with scenes of Robin Williams from his appearance on Happy Days.
The cobbled-together example did the trick, and Mork & Mindy was picked up without so much as a pilot.
Dawber found out about it when her agent discovered a write-up of the show in Variety. “I hadn’t auditioned and I knew nothing. When I first read the script, I thought the premise was just the most stupid thing,” Dawber said. “I remember going, ‘And who in the hell is Robin Williams?'”
But to viewers’ delight, Dawber portrayed Mindy McConnell to the extraterrestrial Mork, played by Robin Williams, from planet Ork, with ease. It seemed the only difficulty Dawber experienced was keeping her composure in the face of Williams’ comedic talents.
On first meeting her co-star, Dawber said, “The minute I met him I went, Oh he’s so cute. And he’s so odd and so funny and boy, oh boy, am I lucky! And so it went from there.” The TV couple grew close on the set. In 2014, Pam told AV Club, “I have just loved him on a very deep level.” After the show had run its course, the two went their own separate ways but some 30 years later, Pam guest-starred on William’s short–lived sitcom, The Crazy Ones.
When Williams succumbed to suicide in 2014, Dawber paid tribute to him in the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. “Robin was such a comedic genius, and he made so many people happy,” she said. “I think that’s why everyone wants to keep revisiting his life.”
Pam Dawber’s marriage to Mark Harmon
For more than three decades, Dawber’s starring role has also been as the loving wife to NCIS star Mark Harmon. The two met at a party thrown by a mutual friend, but prior to their meet cute, Dawber had made a list of qualities she was looking for in a man: strength, intelligence, independence, sensitivity, sensuousness, warmth and a sense of humor.
Checking all the boxes, Pam tied the knot with Mark on March 21, 1987 in a private ceremony with just a few family and friends in attendance. At this time, each was enjoying hot careers: Mork & Mindy and St. Elsewhere, respectively.
Over the years, the ultra private couple rarely appear in public. “We’re not trying to keep something secret, but if you don’t want it totally exploited by the press, you have to,” Dawber said to People while the couple was still engaged.
Dawber and Harmon have two sons, Sean Thomas Harmon, 34 who has played a young Gibbs in several NCIS episodes, and Ty Christian Harmon, 30.
Pam Dawber changes focus after a haunting tragedy
After Mork and Mindy, Dawber went on to star in My Sister Sam from 1986 through 1988 playing Samantha Russell. Enjoying success the first season, the ratings hit a low when CBS moved it to Saturday night. But that was not the most heartbreaking moment of Dawber’s life.
Over a year after the show’s cancellation, Sam’s co-star Rebecca Schaeffer was shot and killed in front of her Los Angeles apartment by a man who had stalked her for three years. This event motivated Dawber and her other My Sister Sam co-stars, Joel Brooks, David Naughton and Jenny O’Hara to film a public service announcement about gun violence prevention.
After the devastating murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, Dawber’s life changed drastically. Not only was Schaeffer a co-star but she had lived with Pam and Harmon for a short time and Dawber even knew Schaeffer’s parents well.
“I had guilt for years because I was so devastated, as everyone else was as well. I thought of Rebecca every day of my life probably for two years. But I couldn’t keep diving in…I almost had to let my relationship with her parents go,” Dawber said on 20/20 in 2019. “There’s something just so painful about the thought…I hadn’t spoken to them since her death and possibly funeral, and I have felt guilty about that for all those years.”
Rather than returning to acting full-time, Pam became an activist for gun control and even testified before Congress in Washington, D.C. lobbying for what she called “saner gun laws.”
This hiatus also gave her time to dedicate her life to her marriage and raising her two boys. “I wanted to drive my kids to school; I wanted to be there for their birthdays and bring cupcakes and doughnuts and do the school festivals and all that, and I did. I was very happy to do it,” she told Entertainment Tonight.
Pam Dawber back on the small screen
To fans’ delight, Dawber came back to TV in 2016 for a guest role on The Odd Couple reboot in an episode that honored creator of the original series, Garry Marshall who also created Mork & Mindy. Then audiences were thrilled to see a gray-haired Dawber in NCIS as investigative journalist, Marcie Warren in 2021.
This wasn’t the first time NCIS asked her to appear on the show alongside her husband, but she felt it was finally time to say yes. “I’ve been asked to do NCIS before over the years. It just wasn’t the right character or the right time,” Dawber told TV Insider. “I read the script and I’m going, “Oh no.” My fear rockets flew off. I haven’t acted in so long. It’s also, at my age, do you really want to be on a big screen? I finally thought I’d feel worse if I chickened out.”
So she knew she had to take the role for her own personal satisfaction. “I answered the many questions if it was going to be a romance but I was like, no, this is not going to be romantic. I had talked to the producers and said if this is a romantic interest, I’m not interested.”
The seven-episode arc proved to excite fans as to a possible Dawber recurring role.
What is Pam Dawber doing next?
Sadly, Dawber is enjoying being semi-retired — along with Harmon who hung up his hat from his 20-year run as Gibbs on NCIS after season 19 — and quips that she wouldn’t want to return as a regular on a television series. “There’s too much social media negativity,” she admits. “And I have passed the point of wanting to sit the makeup chair at six o’clock in the morning!”
But with Harmon taking on producing, we’ll keep our fingers crossed Dawber will change her mind.
Bonnie Siegler is an established international writer covering the celebrity circuit for more than 15 years. Bonnie’s resume includes two books that combine her knowledge of entertaining with celebrity health and fitness and has written travel stories which focus on sustainable living. She has contributed to magazines including Woman’s World and First for Women, Elle, InStyle, Shape, TV Guide and Viva. Bonnie served as West Coast Entertainment Director for Rive Gauche Media overseeing the planning and development of print and digital content. She has also appeared on entertainment news shows Extra and Inside Edition.